Category Archives: vultures

Mutt the Lammergeyer Release, Part II

Mutt the Lammergeyer flew into a border zone where security is not so good. The next five days were some of the toughest I have had for many years. I scrambled, slid, abseiled and climbed in search of an elusive “blip” on a radio receiver. I was scared because if she was killed or disappeared out of radio contact I would have the death of a very rare animal on my conscience. The responsibility of it was sickening especially so as others would take a dim view and consider this seriously if it failed. In hands-on wildlife management critics are ever ready to oppose, no matter what the outcome. It was not good to worry about people’s opinions but as we searched with an ever increasing risk of finding her dead, I kept reinventing what I was going to have to report. In every respect this was the best chance Mutt would have, with the huge resources of Ol Donyo Laro supporting her. If she failed here she would have no hope anywhere else.

I exhausted three ranger patrols, which would have made me chuffed had I not been highly alarmed and in dread of finding her dead. Frustratingly Mutt proved yet again her total inability to return to the “hack” site for food. Instead she hid. Sometimes she must have flown out of one canyon into another, hugging the forested contours and never venturing out into visual range.

Nguruman

Nguruman

From a distance the Nguruman mountains look like rolling hills cloaked in forest with patches of cliffs and open grassland glades. From afar these look ideal and it is possible to find elephant paths that allow easy walking. You can walk the entire length of these mountains in glorious wooded avenues stamped asunder by millennia of elephants and buffalos. To picture the untrodden slopes in which Mutt was so unkind as to spend the night, think of taking a few dollops of mashed potatoes and arranging them in a neat line like Alpine mountains. Then with the back of the fork go berserk scraping the lower sides with furrows and ridges. Then pour thick gravy all over it so that you cannot see these wicked furrows and you have made the section of mountains in which Mutt decided to hide. It looks smooth and forested from the outside, but in fact it is deeply scared beneath with a myriad ridges. It is impossible to get a good fix on a radio signal because radio waves bounce or get cloaked depending upon the landscape.

Larle, a ranger who had helped me with the previous failed release, was inexhaustible and stayed with me for two days. Like me he was unarmed and did not carry a flak jacket, provisions, radio, heavy army boots etc., as did our accompanying ranger force. We left them far behind as we moved mostly on all fours through terrible terrain.

The second night I had awoken with deep pain in the back and was unable to sleep until dawn. The day before, while negotiating a rocky slope in thickets I had slipped badly and hurt my stomach and back with the stiff backpack which had a thick kidney belt. The next morning I urinated some blood and decided to take it easy and stayed in camp. Thankfully things settled down. All I got that day from Mutt was a steady and reassuring signal coming from the same sort of area far across the valleys. The next day we went early with a fresh team who surged ahead and left me behind. They had no idea where they were going and soon came back. Cautious about my health I plodded along warning them that they had no idea what was in store for them. They needed to reserve their energy.

The next 10 hours saw us sliding and crashing up and down vertical banks, sometimes on ropes. The rangers would pause every hour to shake their heads in wonder. Surely none had seen these parts of the mountain and I believed them. Mutt’s signal was wandering. She was flying. We went lower down the mountain descending hundreds of meters mostly on our backs and finally appeared at a large spring. The water was cold, very pure and much appreciated. The spring fed a small riverine line of tall trees and beyond it was the lowland hot acacia woodlands. The hill here was called Milima moto (meaning hot hill), and it lived up to it.

The rangers, feeling as though they had all survived an awesome experience all expressed a resolution that no matter what we would continue on and find Mutt no matter how far she had gone. They were prepared to walk a week or more and have rations dropped on them from the sky. Still feeling beat from ailing kidneys, my comradery with my new fraternity faltered at this suggestion and I sincerely hoped that I could borrow a plane instead.

In line with her radio signal we saw a Crowned Eagle fly out over the hot lowlands and descend fast. I thought this odd because Crowned Eagles are restricted to the high forested slopes from which we had come. The radio suddenly went quite, an ominous sign in this flat landscape. We trudged on towards Magadi sweating profusely in the stifling heat. I tried the radio receiver and changed course to the left. It was so faint a signal and she sounded a very long distance away. Maybe she was covering ground fast. Then appearing before us were a few giraffe looking down and there on the ground was Mutt. She had been beaten to the ground by the Crowned Eagle.

In the next few weeks I organized a new home for her at the Honorable Mutula Kilonzo’s residence near Machakos. Mutt has had more than enough opportunities for freedom and has demonstrated an inability to return to the place of release. She never ate and spent her freedom sulking, frightened and hidden. Even with the full support of Ol Donyo Laro and their formidable team of rangers we recognized that another release attempt would be fatal. I was disappointed in the lack of other wild Lammergeyers, as these hills were in previously known habitat for this species. The Lammergeyer or Bearded Vulture is certainly a critically endangered species in Kenya, and the future of Mutt must now include captive breeding. This enormous bird is much less common and considerably more threatened than more high profile species that receive generous attention.

Portrait of Mutt

Portrait of Mutt

To be honest I dread the responsibility of re-opening the Bearded Vulture re-introduction project, as it will entail considerable physical effort and fiscal resources. Neither of which I have these days! The lessons I learnt nearly a decade ago were not so much the difficulty in achieving a re-introduction, but the insurmountable problems encountered in modern day conservation bureaucracy. This project needs international consent as well as local, and to please all parties takes patience and a lot of hard office work. I am grateful to have high level support from a prominent MP who has a personal desire to see the species re-instated. It would seem that Mutt, like it or not, keeps the flame alive for Lammergeyers in Kenya.

I have a few priorities to straighten out in securing a place to work and live before I can focus attention on Mutt. Meanwhile we are planning a breeding shed similar to the condor breeding sheds in San Diego Zoo and the Peregrine Fund in Boise Idaho.

Mutt the Lammergeyer Release, Part I

I was asked by Gabriele Schaden about the outcome of the Hell’s Gate Bearded Vulture re-introduction project. There is no way I could answer what took up years of my time in a few brief sentences and in replying I thought I could combine it with a blog. In a nutshell, five Bearded Vultures (Lammergeyers) were taken as Abel rescues from Ethiopia in 2001-2002. It had multi-NGO backing and support with the Peregrine Fund finance and KWS and the Ethiopian Wildlife and Conservation Organisation providing permission. The project was partly successful with two of five birds released surviving in the wild for years. Our intention was to take 15 birds, some put aside for captive breeding, some for immediate release. We could have easily have filled that quota with the abundance of Ethiopian nests, but logistically it provided tough to do much of the practical work alone. I had great support from volunteers and colleagues and for two years it was easy to see the famous “Lammergeyer’s of Hell’s Gate.” Active persecution of the released birds and proliferation of geothermal industries within Hell’s Gate and a burgeoning human population outside it, compromised continuation of the plan and resulted in the death of two birds.

With one bird recaptured to save its life (see the following) we changed our aim to captive breeding, recruiting birds within Kenya using a no-impact sibling rescue method we pioneered in Ethiopia. Although accepted, we failed to get adequate physical official assistance or appropriate permits. As a result we lost 4-5 opportunities to take young. In addition I closed down the facility in Athi and had to seek new homes for all the raptors including the remaining bird called “Mutt.”

In short, we proved we could use Abel-rescued young for augmenting a population, but to establish a breeding pair (or a few pairs) we would need more birds. A captive breeding programme would in practise be cheaper and less problematic than taking Abels, and not that difficult to do. But bureaucracy, logistics, location and finance combined to put an end to it.

The final destination for Mutt the Lammergeyer was not as we had planned. I hoped that she would be free and find a mate in the Nguruman mountains on the Kenya and Tanzania border. The following concludes part of her story and ends with an alternative for her future.

In February 2009 Laila Bahaa-el-din and I delivered Mutt to Mark Jenkins at Ol Donyo Laro. Mark had built a shed on a mountain ridge so that Mutt could establish herself and get “homed in” to the location. There she sat until August 2009 when we wrote of her unsuccessful release. Despite the cage she was feather perfect but she was unfit so I decided to rig up an outside flight arrangement that allowed her to fly some 90m. For this I needed Matusa my old “bird man.” now retired. Matusa I hoped, would be able to put Mutt out each day and return her in the evening to the shed, lest leopards ate her. I collected Mutusa in Makindu on the 7th October and drove all day.

Below the Nguruman’s on the Shompole plains is some of the softest volcanic ash which the wind-screen wipers struggled to shift. The air intake filter needed to be removed and cleaned every few kilometers. The drought was terrible, exasperated by an invasion of livestock many times over that which the land could possibly sustain. Dead cattle and wildlife littered the roads. Significantly not one was eaten by vultures or hyenas.

drought

Arriving at Laro we had a centimeter of dust over us that raised some hilarity.

We met Mark Jenkins and after a grateful shower, fine meal and good night’s rest we continued the next day to drive the one hour up the mountain to Mutt’s domain. Matusa, well into his seventies, excitedly told me of the elephants that smashed trees outside of his banda the previous night. He recalled similar nights, many years ago near Machakos with a mournful shake of his head and click of his tongue. There haven’t been elephants there for the past 40 years.

The trouble with Lammergeyers (Bearded Vultures) is that they do not train up like other more conventional raptors. They find it difficult to land on a glove for example. They never get keen or hungry enough to consider flying to receive their food on a lure or glove like a hawk. While there is a negative side to training Mutt it would greatly have helped her overcome her physical weakness and allowed her to understand that she could habitually feed at a certain location. I just didn’t have the time to train her. The best we could do was to give her a long climbing rope to fly up and down from perch to perch. Since her failed release two months previously I noted that she had spent much of her time leaping about and fracturing the tips of her flight feathers. She was obviously keen to go.

Mutusa and Mutt

Mutusa and Mutt

I came back on the 3rd October to see that Matusa and Mutt were doing well. Matusa “walks” Mutt to and from her night shed to her flying ground … a nice way of getting around the problem of having her perched on the glove.

Mutt and Ricky Raven

Mutt and Ricky the Raven

Mutt and two wild White-necked Ravens were good buddies and I hoped they would help lead Mutt in search of food when she was free. I heard from the rangers that one raven got too cheeky and while stealing food was grabbed by Mutt. Some respect was now afforded to Mutt. Alarmingly the rangers and I had not seen more than three vultures from Mutt’s shed for the past nine months! Mark Jenkins had seen a few groups but he too recognizes their serious decline. This was something inconceivable only a few years ago when dozens would be expected each day. No Lammergeyers either.

On the 7th October we took Mutt’s jesses off. Matusa walked her to her favorite rock. Mutt sat there as though nothing had changed. I wanted no dramatic release. She should leave at her own chosen speed and not be hurried into it. The hours ticked by. The magnitude of the event was long past and we all turned our attention away. I lowered the camera. Then the wind stirred. She lifted off and sailed past the perch and over the valley. We ran for binoculars and telescopes to see her traverse distant mountain ridges with the grace of a veteran. She vanished out of sight heading towards Tanzania. I turned on the radio receiver to hear its edifying silence. Later just before dusk the radio signal was faint, then strong. She had moved back into range. Somewhere within 30 kilometers she spent the night.

Mutt airborne

Mutt airborne

Part II coming soon …

International Vulture Awareness Day

Text and photographs by Laila Bahaa-el-din

Vultures are in trouble worldwide. In East Africa, the deliberate poisoning of carnivores is leading to the demise of vultures, while in southern Africa, vulture parts are used in witchcraft and in West Africa, loss of habitat and their use as bush meat are proving catastrophic. In South Asia, vulture populations plummeted by 95 percent in just a decade as a result of consuming the carcasses of cows that had been treated with the anti-inflammatory drug Diclofenac. In Europe, strict health regulations mean that all carcasses are disposed of, leaving no food for the vultures.

Bearded Vulture at Ol Donyo Laro, Kenya
Bearded Vulture at Ol Donyo Laro, Kenya

Hooded Vulture in the Mara, Kenya
Hooded Vulture in the Mara, Kenya

What to do? The general public doesn’t get up in arms about vultures. We can’t make emotional appeals based around cute and cuddly animals. The world needs to sit up and take notice of this crisis, if not for the vultures’ sakes, then for their own. Vultures have the unfortunate reputation of being dirty. The truth is that they not only clean up everybody else’s mess by consuming carcasses that would otherwise encourage diseases and pests such as rats, but they also are meticulous in washing themselves, finding water to bathe in daily when they can.

Black Vulture head in the Osa, Costa Rica
Black Vulture head in the Osa, Costa Rica

Black Vultures in the Osa, Costa Rica
Black Vultures in the Osa, Costa Rica

So it is that vultures need an image make-over and serious awareness-raising. September 5, 2009 is International Vulture Awareness Day so wherever you are in the world, do a little something that might help spread the message that vultures need our help and fast. Here in Kenya, the Raptor Working Group, made of biologists, photographers and other interested individuals, has been organising a fair at the National Museum for the weekend of September 5-6th. I will be dressing up as a vulture as part of the awareness-raising entertainment and hope to show children what fun animals vultures are. There is going to be a national art competition, puppet show, story-telling and other activities that will hopefully lead to people looking at vultures in a new light. If you’re in Nairobi, come and join us there.

Cape Vulture at Kransberg, South Africa
Cape Vulture at Kransberg, South Africa

Cleanup Crew - King Vulture and Black Vultures in the  Osa, Costa Rica
Cleanup Crew – King Vulture and Black Vultures in the Osa, Costa Rica

We owe a big Thank You to the African Bird Club which has been so generous in its sponsorship of the upcoming event.

To see how you can take part, visit the International Vulture Awareness Day Web site: www.ivad09.org

Egyptian Vulture at Ololokwe, Kenya
Egyptian Vulture at Ololokwe, Kenya

Young King Vultures in the Osa, Costa Rica
Young King Vultures in the Osa, Costa Rica
King Vulture in the Osa, Costa Rica

Lappet-faced Vulture in the Mara, Kenya
Lappet-faced Vulture in the Mara, Kenya

Long-billed Vulture at Bandhavgarh, India
Long-billed Vulture at Bandhavgarh, India

Ruppell’s Vulture in the Mara, Kenya
Ruppell’s Vulture in the Mara, Kenya

Smooching Lappets in the Mara, Kenya
Smooching Lappets in the Mara, Kenya

Turkey Vulture in the Osa, Costa Rica
Turkey Vulture in the Osa, Costa Rica

Turkey Vulture over the Pacific on Costa Rican coast
Turkey Vulture over the Pacific on Costa Rican coast

White-headed  Vulture female in Etosha, Namibia
White-headed Vulture female in Etosha, Namibia

Where are all the vultures?

We were finally ready to go! The expedition launched from Nairobi on February 15 and there was no going back (we hoped). We started with a few more days in the Mara to see if we could catch any vultures. Again, we found no dead animals around, making it impossible to try to catch the vultures. We resorted to following hungry-looking lions hunting. We found three prides, all in hunting mode, but never witnessed a kill. We had given up hope, when on our final morning, on our way towards the exit of the Mara (keen to move on to the Serengeti), we spotted five lions. We just had to go and see.

So we got to the spot and watched as the lions licked at the remains of a topi. A few metres away, 10 jackals were fighting over their own small piece of the kill. And on the sidelines, 12 bloodied hyenas lay watching, looking distinctly peeved. Simon concluded that the hyenas must have made the kill and been pushed off by the lions who now lazed about looking fully fed. One thing was for sure, there was nothing left for vultures to come down to.

lion eating a topi in the mara
Lion with topi head

jackals in the mara
Jackals

Despite not having caught any vultures on this trip or the previous one a month ago, we learned some interesting things about their ecology and the whole Mara-Serengeti ecosystem. It was already known that the vultures were few in the Mara during this time of year while the wildebeests give birth to their calves in the Serengeti. And it’s not surprising! When the wildebeest migration is in the Mara, there are millions of animals and among them, old and sick ones which die and become food for the vultures. The lions, leopards and cheetahs also have a larger prey-base and kill much more often, leaving remains for the scavengers such as vultures. But during this quiet time of year, predators hunt much less frequently, and when they do, they are hungry and don’t leave anything spare. No wonder there were no vultures around!

We looked forward to getting to the Serengeti to see what the vulture situation was down there.

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Mutt’s Mountaintop Home

Mutt the Bearded Vulture was moved to Ol Donyo Laro a few weeks ago. Mark Jenkins had built her a large pen near his house. This was an excellent first base camp for her but it was not intended to be a release location. She was to settle here until she found her bearings and became familiar with the area. Mark had his eye on a rocky high top almost at the summit of the Nguruman’s. Here was a ranger post with radio tower and nearby appearing out of thick forest and rocky cliffs lay a perfect spot. Bearded Vultures like these outcrops of rock to drop their bones. It is called an “ossuary.”

Laila and I flew up to meet Mark and his family. We then took Mutt up the rocky road to the high radio camp. Mutt had to be slightly sedated for the trip as it was long. We passed through some of the best quality forest I have ever seen and deep valleys with formidable cliffs. Truly these forests are a beautiful area of Kenya that deserves protection. When we arrived, I carried Mutt in my arms to a shed perched on one of the finest places in the country. It has a view that beats any lodge or grand home. It looks out down the ridge to northern Tanzania. She can see Ol Donyo Lengai, and even Ngorongoro, past the vast expanse of Lake Natron. In Tanzania, the Bearded vulture is still present, and these distant hills do still have nesting pairs. It is highly likely that Bearded Vultures still fly up and down the Nguruman’s hills and pass directly over her shed.

simon and mutt
Simon and Mutt

We even searched the bare rocks in front of her shed to see if there were any smashed bone fragments from wild Bearded Vultures. Of all the possible locations within Kenya, this is certainly the best. It has not only the likelihood of other wild Bearded Vultures, but also it has the commitment of Ol Donyo Laro and 24-hour guard and eminence. The site is secure in this respect. The habitat, too, is likely to be much healthier. Poisoning seldom occurs within this region, and if she ventures into northern Tanzania, the habitat there is much more favourable than in much of central and northern Kenya.

view from mutt’s shed
View from Mutt’s shed

After taking a few pictures, we put her in her shed, where she stood on shaky legs from the effects of the sedative. I felt very happy in knowing that she has such a great home. Here she must stay and get focused on new home, prior to release. It is wise to let her stay some months so that she can imprint on her location and return when she is released.

Mutt the Bearded Vulture finds a new home

In late 2001, I abseiled down a cliff into a gorge just north east of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. The edge was covered in thick vegetation and was full of shards of frost that snowed down on my neck as I gingerly let go of my right hand and dropped down only some 50 feet into a deep cave. There was a good few hundred more feet to go, and this explained my caution and fear.

Inside the cave were two very young Bearded Vulture chicks. One was much smaller than the other and aged about three days. The other was about seven days old. I took the elder. In the wild, only one chick survives and so Cain and Abel rescue is the norm in raptor management. It augments the natural reproduction by 100 percent if done cautiously. I was at that time working for the Peregrine Fund, National Museums of Kenya, KWS and the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Organisation in a project to re-introduce Bearded Vultures (Lammergeyers to some) to Kenya.

I called her ‘Mutt’ after the Amharic explosive exclamation. “Mutt!” is a bit like “What!”

I cannot now remember if it was with her or with another that I was thrown off a Kenya Airways plane in Addis. I had prepared the endless CITES forms, permits, health permits and clearances. Obviously the tiny chick is incapable of being taken down in the hold, as it needed 24-hour care, and its body temperature is entirely dependent on being held close to ones tummy for the duration of the flight. All this had been organized ahead. Yet one of the cabin crew noticed, moved swiftly up the aisle and came back straight away with two stewards and I was escorted outside. The chick had been traumatized enough for the last five hours and its life was hanging in the balance. I gave the stewards the papers to forward to the captain (I had already done it once). But I could see the Captain ignoring me as I sat on the tarmac. Finally I phoned my colleagues in EWCO. They immediately phoned the Foreign Office in Kenya. They phoned back to Kenya Airways, and the Captain was suddenly a different man. Onboard I was ushered and home we went, to be met at Nairobi by Paula Kahumbu’s car.

Mutt and five other Bearded Vultures were taken in this way. It was a good time. For the first time in two decades we had Bearded Vultures flying over Hell’s Gate National Park in Kenya. Then we had a few problems, including one being deliberately killed. Mutt used to venture right into this hostile territory and I was advised to take her back into captivity. Two others were left wild as they did not enter that area.

mutt the bearded vulture
Mutt the Bearded Vulture

I then put her in a huge shed at Game Ranching in Athi, and over the following five years tried to find her a mate within Kenya. I did find one pair and missed three opportunities to rescue Abel as I was unable to get official assistance in the field. This was the local requirement and easily resolved, but for bureaucracy. I began to regret having taken her back for she sat most of these years alone, but for a few where she lived with an Augur Buzzard and once a Rüppell’s Vulture. The captive breeding of Bearded Vultures is a simple thing, but without clear permission and encouragement it was not going anywhere. With the closure of my collection of raptors and house, Mutt remained the most important of all, and the one that held back our expedition plans and the final closure of my house.

I had released Duchess, a captive bred Crowned Eagle, at Ol Donyo Laro two years ago. The release went well and she is still alive and wild. The location is without doubt the best possible choice in Kenya for the release of Bearded Vultures, given the now enormous human population around Hell’s Gate (the original release site) and the proliferation of very hazardous electrical pylons and geothermal generation in the immediate vicinity. Other locations that once held this rare raptor such as Mt. Kenya, Mt. Elgon, Cheranganis, the Ndutus, Mt. Kulal and Sololo are either heavily influenced by humans, regularly poisoned or simply logistically impossible to release.

Mark Jenkins at Ol Donyo Laro stepped in to help. He has taken on the task of managing the wildlife and habitat of the area and has a personal interest in assisting one of Kenya’s most endangered animals. He phoned on Wednesday, January 20th to ask if we could be ready to move her the next day. On the day, Laila and I gathered up Mutt and drove her into town and got on a plane to Ol Donyo Laro. Mark had built a fine pen for her. She will remain in this new pen for a while, adapting her internal map of the area and getting used to the local scene. She will then be moved to the very highest peak overlooking known Bearded Vulture habitat in Kenya and across into Tanzania. From there we hope to release her, preferably with a PTT (satellite transmitter tag) or one of the new cellular phone GPS transmitters. I costs a small fortune, but possibly no other single animal is as valuable as she. With some luck, she will make her home here in one of the wildest and best quality locations in our region. It will be the end of a long story, and perhaps the beginning of a new and more vigorous campaign to re-instate Bearded Vultures in Kenya.

Laila and Mutt on way to airport
Mutt on her way to the airport

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Lions and cheetahs get in the way

We had about a week before the Bearded Vulture’s new home would be ready so we decided to take off for the Mara. We had several species that we aimed to photograph and we were also interested in seeing how many vultures were around during this time of year. All the wildebeest are in the Serengeti now so it is down-time for the vultures in the Mara. We hoped to at least catch a few and tag them as part of the ongoing project with the Peregrine Fund and National Museums of Kenya.

We arrived in the Mara to find it very quiet. We drove for a whole day seeing very little in the way of raptors or other animals. We saw a Dark Chanting Goshawk which we managed to bait, catch, ring and photograph. That was one of the key species we needed in the Mara so we were pleased. We moved on to the main Mara River crossing and found where all the wildlife was. Thousands of zebras were there as well as all the cats.

dark chanting goshawk in mara
Dark Chanting Goshawk

We found two lions on a zebra kill out on the open plains and stayed with them, hoping that they would eat and move to find the shade. Our plan didn’t quite work as the lions came to lie under our car, using the car as shade. The vultures know better than to approach the kill while the lions are still around (in fact, one cheeky Hooded Vulture approached and one of the lionesses was quick to jump up and the vulture backed off). We ended up spending the whole day with the lions but didn’t catch any vultures.

lions in our shade in the mara
Lions in our shade

We spent the next few days around that busy area and came across countless lions, cheetahs and a leopard. There weren’t any dead animals around so our best bet was to stick with the cats and hope that they killed something. On our second morning, we found the remains of a Thomson’s Gazelle. There really wasn’t very much meat left on it, and what little was there was being eaten by jackals. There was a White-headed Vulture standing on the outskirts which was another of our key species for the Mara trip.

white-headed vulture in the mara
White-headed Vulture

We had to get back to Nairobi for a friend’s photo exhibition so we set off after four days in the Mara. Just as we got through the gate, we got a phone call saying that cheetahs had killed an impala but it was too late for us to go back. But we do plan to return for another attempt soon. We had spent some time catching vultures in the Mara last year during the wildebeest migration and the sky was full of vultures so it was interesting to see the contrast now that everything is so quiet.

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Some Good Luck – A Rare Eagle

Kina and Gustav, the Swedish overlander couple, stayed with us again at Simon’s house. They intended to stay one night before moving on to the coast. We flew Tim the Lanner in the morning and he is fitter than ever before and his acrobatics are spectacular. He still has his quirky attitude and loves to land on people’s heads. There are a couple of wild Tawny Eagles that have started perching nearby, planning to steal scraps from Tim. As Tim showed off, we noticed a large number of vultures descending fast. We didn’t want to leave Stima, the new young Lanner Falcon, alone at the house as a stray cat roams the area. So we put him in the car between our Swedish friends and off we went to find the kill.

On our way, friends from the ranch, Gray Cullen and Suze, came to check on Stima. They had cameras and decided to join us, too. We got to the spot to find two dead calves covered in vultures and eagles. The vultures took flight and I photographed them as they soared above the car. Then Simon asked me to quickly divert my attention to an eagle that was sitting in a tree just next to the dead calf. I took a couple of photos and we got closer. Simon got very excited and demanded I take as many photographs as possible. He said he thought it was a Greater Spotted Eagle. He only sees them come through once every two-to-three years so it really was special. It cooperated by letting us get quite close and just flying between nearby trees.

greater spotted eagle
Greater Spotted Eagle

Suze and Gray invited us all to lunch and we had a feast. They had bought a football for Tuli, a captive cheetah that lives on the ranch, and were intending to bring it to her that afternoon so we all went along. We all piled into Gray’s car and were driving along when Simon said excitedly “cheetah!” A little further down the road, there she was, beautiful. We stopped the car and spent the following half-hour quietly watching as she stalked impalas and an oryx through the bush. She didn’t catch anything and disappeared into the trees so we continued on our way to see Tuli.

cheetah and oryx
Wild Cheetah facing an Oryx

We arrived to find Tuli lying by the pool. She stood up as we approached and gave Gray an intense look that made him back off a bit. Suze drew Tuli’s attention away from Gray by throwing the ball which she ran after, pounced on, and held it in a lock with her teeth sunk in. She held that pose for at least five minutes, wanting to make sure the ball was dead. We quickly realised that there would be no game unless we got the ball from her but we were all a little nervous to try and take it. I was one of the only people wearing proper shoes and trousers, so I went forward to claim the ball. As I got close, she turned and growled at me, making me jump back. I approached again and managed to slowly draw the ball away with my foot. The game was on! I kicked it into the distance and off she went and everyone joined in.

football with Tuli
Football with Tuli

After our long and exciting day, we all crashed out early. I think Gustav and Kina are glad they spent the extra day here and we’re grateful for the amazing luck they brought us.

(For copyright reasons, we can’t post the pictures on the blog that we may want to publish at a later stage.)

Kwenia’s Vultures and Visitors

Laila wrote about the visit to Kwenia, a temporary lake flanked by massive cliffs, filled with vultures.

It rained heavily during the drive down. But the night was initially wonderful as we sat around the camp fire with Sandy and Sandy, talking of the enormous potential the area had for exclusive high-end tourism. So close to Nairobi and yet unspoiled by electric lights, cell phone towers, tourist lodges, over-development and urban sprawl. But “progress” is on its way and this nationally important asset for Kenya could so easily vanish. Then it rained again, and we retreated to the car. I was very uncomfortable on the way down and could not sit in anything other than an awkward angle in the back of the car. I had to lie down. At 10:30 p.m. I got out to set up the tent in the rain. On crutches and hurting I must have done something that really hurt and I felt violently ill. It seemed like the head of the femur moved and I desperately needed to lie down to straighten it and get the load off. I was helped in to the soaked tent and there breathed a sigh of much needed relief. It had been a long day and I guess I was pushing the leg much too far.

We returned via Magadi, and the next few days we had Gustav and Kina, overlanders we had met in Solio, plus Wesley, a young American, come and visit. We went around the Portland Ranch nearby and our guests were stunned by the amount of wildlife. We went out on a night “game drive” and bumped into a good dozen Spotted Hyena very close to the car. We also saw a tiny Stone Curlew chick follow its nervous mother and push itself under her feathers for warmth.

stone curlew
Stone Curlew

Tim the Lanner flew in and Laila took some of the best pictures I have ever seen of a falcon in a stoop. I had lost a lot of what I had gained over the last week and was now back on two crutches. It isn’t easy flying a falcon on crutches! Laila took a picture of what we first thought was a Hobby, but on zooming in turned out to be a Sooty Falcon. The photo is not good, but shows how useful digital photography can be for identifying rare raptors at a long range.

sooty falcon
Sooty Falcon

The next day, I was flying Tim when what might have been an Eleonora’s Falcon came down from the gray rain-soaked clouds and mobbed Tim. Eleonora’s are larger than Hobbies, have less of a well pronounced second moustachial stripe, very little buff or rufous on the legs and always a dark head.

eleonora’s falcon
Eleonora’s Falcon

As predicted, whenever it rains, be it months out of season, we get visiting small migrant falcons. They feed on the airborne insects that fly only in rain, or just after it has past.

Despite the accident, we are remaining productive and getting some good observations. We hope to get the car fixed soon, and be on our way visiting Tsavo and other protected areas within the week.

Conserving a Beautiful Location – Kwenia

Staying at Hog Ranch once Simon was released from hospital was great. I had itchy hands as I had no camera with me and wildlife was tame. David Gulden, our host, was scratching a warthog on the nose and called over to me to “come and feel her warts.” A new one for me. I also marveled at a huge bull giraffe that bowed his head down to meet mine, just curious it seemed.

Sandy and Sandy have been endlessly kind to us and have been putting us up in their home. Simon has been progressing really fast and we are almost ready to take on our expedition. Simon’s bad hip is the one he needs for the clutch so I will have to pass my driving test (which embarrassingly I have not yet done) so I can do the driving.

Simon was feeling so well two days ago that with the two Sandys, we decided to go on a camping trip to a cliff site called Kwenia. We made the decision that morning and within a couple of hours were ready with the car packed. We didn’t get too far before the car starting giving us trouble and we had to turn back. That didn’t hold us back for long and we tried again the following day, on Obama Day (Kenya declared a national holiday in honour of Obama winning the American presidency).

It isn’t a pleasant road for the most part, but once we left the main road, we started to see Dikdiks and Kudus. The rain arrived, bringing in the termites which in turn attracted the Hobbies. The scenery got more and more beautiful until we arrived along a huge expanse of cliff faces on one side, mountains on the other and an empty temporary lake in between them, full of golden grass. Sandy and Sandy wowed and we all sat quietly contemplating the beauty of the place. Simon has been talking about Kwenia for a long time and I now understand why. We arrived as night fell, so we started a fire and discussed potential ways in which the place could be protected.

The rain returned and sent us running to the car where we all dozed until the braver of us got out and set up tents. I continued to sleep in the nice dry car. Morning brought light that allowed us to look onto the cliffs and see the real importance of the area: a colony of nesting Rüppell’s Vultures, the largest known in Southern Kenya (at last count, it had more than 200 individuals). We ate breakfast with binoculars glued to our faces as we tried to count them, then watched as they set off to whatever distant locations they may go to. Still so much is unknown about their daily routine but they do travel very large distances. We also had the pleasure of seeing Rock Kestrels and Egyptian Vultures on the cliffs.

vultures at kwenia
Rüppell’s Vultures at Kwenia (How many can you see?)

We set off and took a little detour to Lake Magadi to see the Lesser Flamingos. Simon and I hoped to see a Fish Eagle swoop down on a Flamingo but it wasn’t to be. We did, however, see what Simon believes to be an Imperial Eagle drinking from a puddle. If it was the Imperial, then it is quite a treat as they are extremely rare migrants from Europe. The scenery is beautiful around that area and we all returned pleased from a great little trip. We really do hope that Kwenia’s importance will soon be realised and that it will be conserved.

gerenuk at kwenia
Gerenuk in Magadi

lake magadi
Lake Magadi